Rebirth of a Nation?
Former GOP Strategist Worries About The Party’s Recent Evangelical Turn
American Theocracy is one of the scariest and, frankly, most convincing books on the Republican political revolution to come out in awhile. The kicker, of course, is that author Kevin Phillips earned his stripes in the Richard Nixon era as a Republican political strategist. As author of 1969’s The Emerging Republican Majority, he presaged the realignment of American political power in the late 1960s—when few saw it coming. In the half-century since, he’s followed the transformation of that trend into the paper-thin but powerful majority that now controls Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court.
Phillips is no friend of evangelicals, but there is a messianic streak in American Theocracy. For him, the religious base that has come to shape the Republican agenda doesn’t just signal a misalignment in priorities. It’s part and parcel of an empire that has overreached itself economically and militarily. Phillips’ most recent books, American Dynasty and Wealth and Democracy, signal a widening gap between the ruling elite and the middle class. Theocracy, more ominously, explains how a party that presides over this division managed to convince a slim majority of Americans, largely from the economically beleaguered red states, to vote for George W. Bush. Under Karl Rove’s able guidance, the party tapped into what Phillips diagnoses at the outset as the three most dangerous forces in American politics: “religious excess, an outdated or declining energy and industrial base, and financialization and debt.”
And from Phillips’ perspective, these crossroads connect at a dangerous moment in U.S. history, where other nations in similar situations have folded. It’s one thing to say that President Bush has religious impulses—Phillips shows why he couldn’t have been elected president without them. Plenty of Americans, generals included, are decrying the war in Iraq as insane. In his initial chapter Phillips explains how, given their priorities, Vice President Dick Cheney and company made the right decision: that for a heavily religious, authoritarian executive to wield power in today’s economy, a war was necessary. In other words, Phillips is not just diagnosing the problem; he’s delving into the logic of an imperial presidency and the political system that appears to support it now.
Most of Phillips’ claims are supported by his initial analysis of our oil-based economy. The statistics he pulls out are relentless, a little tiring, but convincing. Americans consume about 25 percent of the world’s energy while producing about 5 percent. Of the world’s 520 million automobiles, more than 200 million are driven in the United States. And the U.S. car population, he writes, is increasing at five times the rate of the human population. Maybe he didn’t have to go far to collect those statistics, but laying them out on the page is a little jolting. It’s scary, and suddenly it makes sense: With an economic base that feeds on debt and a real-estate bubble, it’s only logical that the ascendant political forces in this country may feed on a religious end-time sensibility.
Phillips also focuses on what this means for John and Joan Q. Public, stranded in the exurbs, trying to support a family while consuming about two-thirds of the nation’s oil. What he comes up with is enough to take the heart out of any Democrat. In essence, he shows that loyalty to cars competes with loyalty to guns as a political issue. In “micropolitan areas,” the emerging middle class accepts commutes so that they can afford homes. He cites automobile blue book data that convincingly correlates annual driving mileage with GOP bias, such that the longer the commute, the more likely to lean toward Republican ideals. But most importantly, by the time he gets to the end of this chapter, it becomes clear that a loyal Democrat who drives an hour to work each day is probably doing more to keep Republicans in power than a Republican who takes the subway.
But where Syriana ends, Phillips is just beginning. He avoids the corporate conspiracy theories—not that they’re necessarily wrong, they’re just a little tough to follow. Instead, he chooses a fairly simple and overarching thesis: outdated infrastructure. Not only are we using oil like there’s no tomorrow, but large sectors of the voting population are going to church like there’s no tomorrow. And we’re spending money like there’s no tomorrow. And we have a president who hints at a worldview that doesn’t see far beyond the next decade or so. Our political, economic, and cultural infrastructures are just as damaged—and obsolete—as a Texas oil pipeline.
The link between imperialism and theocracy is a disastrous marriage of convenience in Phillips’ account, one that feeds on—and distorts—the conservative streak in American politics. Phillips argues that the Republican Party was able to link an economic trend—petro-imperialism—to a longstanding populist religious streak, one that has been waiting to be mined for decades. It also accounts for the wink in Rove’s eye: Cultural and religious impulses, generally mocked or ignored by the Democrats, were organized into a thin but omnipotent majority.
If oil is the drug, faith is the tie that binds in this scheme. Religious radicalization is a more nebulous phenomenon than oil consumption, so Phillips takes care to define it as scientifically as possible—painstakingly, even to excess, tracing the roots of the Republican majority to a gradual and longstanding messianic and fundamentalist streak in American culture. He locates the majority of this demographic in the South, which he explores historically and culturally, to explain the gradual expansion of the red states.
Once Phillips starts diagnosing the religious South, he begins to sound a little like a Connecticut Yankee. His scholarly analysis of fundamentalism is useful, but his reliance on Zogby and USA Today polls is a little iffy. Phillips tries to pursue an almost-perfect bell curve to support his thesis that the right-wing religious movement has gradually grown since the ’60s. Using the term “born again” or “churchgoing” to define sectors of population would be more useful if Phillips was able to talk to a few of the red-state voters who describe themselves that way. After all, there hasn’t been an U.S. president since Nixon who hasn’t, when pressed, referred to himself as born-again on some level. Is the term just being floated around more? Does it mean something different than pollsters think?
He’s on solid ground, though, in his final section, which deals with the national debt. There the old-school Republican rears his head: He traces the American plunge into the red to the ascent of Keynesian economics, the Roosevelt era, and, finally, the Johnson era. No one who pays MBNA or struggles with health-insurance bills is going to argue with the central thesis here: Our nation has moved over the last 50 years from a manufacturing-based to a debt-based economy. Eventually, as anyone running for Congress will agree, someone has to pay the piper. But with a political system where a president has his finger on the button and his eye on the end time, that’s unlikely to happen.
Phillips isn’t putting a date on the decline and fall of the American empire. Nor is he cramming a conspiracy theory down our throats. You can take or leave his diagnosis of messianism, although, as Bush starts banging drums for a third war while he’s tangled up in two already, it rings ominously true. But Phillips’ central thesis is indisputable: The fringe is not the fringe anymore. It’s a full-blown political force, and there’s more to it than most observers are willing to admit. And for those who feel the latest polls indicate that the country is finally turning around, Phillips offers a strong caveat: Those wavering red-staters may just be looking at the signs outside the gas stations. What Bush will do to recapture those wavering supporters is anyone’s guess. But he’s done it in the past—and if Phillips is right, he’ll probably do it again.